A starry rectangle of outer space. A dark-haired girl, her face ambivalent. A fish-shaped spaceship flying toward a gothic tower. These are the first three panels of On a Sunbeam, Tillie Walden’s new graphic novel—the tale of a girl and her interplanetary journey.
Mia has joined a crew that travels through outer space, documenting and repairing old buildings. The narrative hops between the crew’s adventures and Mia’s memories of her time at an elite boarding school, where she fell for a girl named Grace. As with many dual narratives, part of the plot and mystery of the book is how the two story lines connect. Mia arrives on the spaceship alone, without Grace. Slowly, readers learn how they became separated and how they might be reunited.
Refreshingly, the setting is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. There are problems: When the Staircase, a frontier planet, refused to sell its resources or join a treaty, that section of the galaxy was made “illegal.” There are annoying bureaucrats and school bullies. But there are also magical forests, school proms, and first kisses. And it is a world in which two girls can fall for each other, and be teased for their geekiness, not their gender.
Walden is 22, and has published four books. On a Sunbeam is her fifth. This early start to her career has given readers a window into a developing voice. Her subject matter has stretched from a fantastical palace mired in a three-year winter to her own teenage years as an ice skater. On a Sunbeam is Walden’s first plunge into science fiction, and she is frank about her uneasy relationship with the genre. “I don’t really like sci-fi,” she told me. Her particular gripe is that “a lot of it is full of dudes and cold white spaces and capitalism.” But On a Sunbeam has science fiction’s familiar trappings. Over more than 500 pages, the book features space travel, interplanetary conflict, and a story line that will be recognizable to viewers of Star Wars or Firefly: a crew of outsiders braving conflict and breaking laws to fulfill a mission.
On a Sunbeam hews close to one of science fiction’s most archetypal story arcs. Joseph Campbell lays out the notion of the “monomyth” in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, claiming it to be the story behind all stories. A simple version is as follows: A man leaves home, receives a call to adventure, encounters a mentor, undergoes trials, confronts an evil, and returns rewarded and transformed. While not completely universal, as Campbell claimed, it is a common template that lends itself to dramatic plots. George Lucas credits Campbell’s concept for the plot of Star Wars. You’ll find a version of it in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and in the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix. From within this familiar plot arc On a Sunbeam makes its stance against “dudes and cold white spaces and capitalism.”
Many science-fiction writers have imagined and reimagined the future for women. Joanna Russ invented a planet called Whileaway, where all the men have died and women reproduce with one another. In Naomi Alderman’s The Power, women develop the ability to electrocute men, and this physical advantage soon leads to dominance at home, at work, and in government. Walden just omits the men. They don’t appear as weak or powerful, good or evil. In On a Sunbeam, all the human characters but one are female. That last, Elliot, the ship’s mechanic, is nonbinary. Whether the men are dead or just off the edge of the page is never discussed. When asked, Walden explained that she had always intended the book to feature women and queer people. And as she worked, she thought, “Wait, why would I even add any men in the background? Why not just gals and genderless pals?” (There’s actually one male character: the cat. As Walden said, “If people are sad that there aren’t any guys, I can say, ‘Hey, at least I gave you the cat.’”)
What about Walden’s anti-capitalism? It’s not obvious at first. None of the characters wields The Communist Manifesto. Readers know little about the economies at work. An environmentalist streak exists in how Walden describes the need to protect the “indigenous wildlife” of the Staircase, but even this is only glanced upon. It is in the daily priorities of the novel’s heroes that Walden’s political philosophy is clearest. When the crew’s supervisor fails to respect that one of the crew uses they pronouns, rather than he or she, the crew protests by claiming to have forgotten what work they did that day, adding, “But I’m sure you get that. You can’t remember one person’s pronouns.” The supervisor could fire them all, but they deem that one member’s gender identity being respected is more important than profit.
This subtle resistance to viewing profit as the ultimate goal goes beyond the story line of On a Sunbeam to the way it was made. The entire novel was first available as a free web comic and remains online even after the book deal. Buying the physical book is a nice option for readers who prefer paper to screens, but that isn’t required to read it. It will be interesting to see whether in the future Walden continues to produce work that is simultaneously free and available for purchase.
In part, the medium of On a Sunbeam dictated its style. Walden freely admits to working quickly on the project. The scenery is detailed, delving into the whirls of a storm cloud or the paint pots of a map maker’s studio. But the speed means the lines feel scratchier and less precise than in her previous work. The energy of the artist’s pen gives the panels a looser feel. In all of Walden’s books, the human faces are minimally detailed. In her first, they were so simply drawn that it was at times difficult to tell characters apart.
This simplicity persists in On a Sunbeam. Noses are flicks of the pen. Eyes are a line and a dot. But On a Sunbeam’s characters are more individualistic in dress, hairstyle, and skin tone—allowing Walden to create recognizable faces and figures from only a few lines. A diversity of racial features seems to be taken for granted in this universe, and personal choices—such as a particular hairstyle—do reflect character. Mia’s messy and ragged bob expresses her slightly chaotic personality, while Grace, a girl who keeps her secrets buttoned up, puts her curly hair into a tight bun, and only begins to let it down as she relaxes.
In both print and on-screen, meanwhile, space isn’t represented as cold and white. It is held together instead by a sunset palette—of oranges, yellows, and purples, with the occasional dusky blue. Together, line and hue form a cohesion that carries the book through jumps from crumbling ruin to boarding school to frontier settlement to magical forest.
With On a Sunbeam, Walden has created a science-fiction universe that is about women, queer love, old buildings, and big trees. It may piss off science-fiction purists. Walden is loose with convention. Her characters breathe in space all the time. This is a choice she defends nonchalantly: “It’s my world. My rules.” And it is. The most endearing aspect of On a Sunbeam is the confidence the narrative has in the world it exists within. The fish-shaped spaceship becomes a silent character, its face seemingly straining as it flies. Walden doesn’t create fake scientific-sounding explanations for why the ship is shaped this way—it just is.
Similarly, many aspects of the universe are only hinted at; there are, for instance, ancient beings that look like giant foxes. But readers don’t know exactly why they are the way they are or what other types of ancient beings might look like. The characters play a game aboard the ship that is part Dungeons and Dragons, part cards, and part video game. But the rules are never explained to the reader. Any one of these details might form the basis for an entire story. But by only glancing at them, Walden creates the intoxicating effect of a universe as mysterious as our real one.